Sean Williams is an experienced author in the field of space opera, having written the Evergence, Orphans, and Geodesica series’ with collaborator Shane Dix. Saturn Returns is the first book of Williams’ solo Astropolis trilogy.
At the outer reaches of the galaxy, over 800,000 years in the futurea man named Imre Bergasmac is recreated from the ruins and of an ancient record- a huge iron cylinder with Imre’s DNA and memories carved into vast grooves circling the interior- and given life again. The cylinder had to be reconstructed from its debris after being blown apart with nuclear weapons by parties unknown, so the reborn Imre was brought back incomplete (and the wrong sex), with many memories missing and others he cannot understand or fit into context. He knows he was once a soldier, but the most recent memories he can call up are from 150,000 years prior, a time when he fought on the losing side of the devastating war known as the Mad Times, a failed rebellion against the godlike posthumans known as Forts.
Imre is surrounded by mysteries. Someone made a journey of thousands of years to the edge of the galaxy to obliterate him by blowing up his recording, and he doesn’t know why. The holes torn in his memory by his incomplete reconstruction raise many questions that need answers. The fate of his comrades in arms is unknown. The motives of the being that recreated him, a nomadic group consciousness called the Jinc, are uncertain. Most disturbingly of all, the Continuum- the human civilization that spans the galaxy- has fallen silent, its vast web of communication transmissions between the stars mysteriously snuffed out. Imre sets out back towards civilization in search of answers- about his friends, about the state of humanity and the Continuum, about his own identity. There are mysterious forces trying to stop him, and none of the answers to his questions will be comforting.
Saturn Returns is a fine addition to the space opera field and a promising beginning for a series. The setting is fascinating, with creative locations, a stunning sense of scale, and a real sense of the uncanny. Imre is an interesting and enjoyable protagonist, and the dual mysteries of his past and of what silenced the Continuum are well-presented and engaging. There are some fine action sequences that are both exciting and creative in their use of their speculative elements, such as technology to manipulate subjective perception of time.
The book has a very strong atmosphere, creating both wonder and a sense of cold dread. The speed of light remains a barrier in Williams’ universe, which- aside from providing a welcome dose of realism- serves the mood of the book very well. The story’s ominous, chilling tone is strengthened by the emphasis this puts on the sheer size of the Continuum, which would take tens of thousands of years to cross from one side to the other. Every individual system is years away from any possible outside help, and anything that could conceivably threaten something so vast as the whole must be a horror beyond imagining.
It also lets Williams come up with some interesting ideas as to how a civilization hundreds of thousands of years old would deal with such distances, where sending the simplest of messages to another system takes years. People can travel in “hard storage”- pure data that is transmitted across the stars and used to reconstruct the original person at the destination point. Others choose to adjust their own subjective perception of time, so that years go by like moments. Still others solve the problem by being in many places at once, creating a whole set of “singleton” duplicate selves that live separate lives for a time, perhaps many light years apart, and then periodically rejoin to merge their experiences.
Williams creates a fascinating array of entities and forms of human life, successfully making a galaxy where humans are the only form of intelligent life seem deeply alien. There are the primes, who seek to live as normal humans. There are the singletons, profoundly strange and yet still basically human in psychology. There are gestalt minds, numerous original minds merged into a single collective. Finally, there are the posthuman forts, godlike intellects who think vast thoughts over thousands and thousands of years, interacting with lesser beings through their “frags,” expendable humans linked to the mind of the fort and manipulated like limbs.
Saturn Returns is an excellent book for anyone who likes dark, epic-scale space opera, stories with intense action, or science fiction about subjects such as slower-than-light interstellar societies and the technological transformation of the human mind. Sean Williams has created an excellent combination of atmospheric power, thoughtful speculation, and visceral excitement that I recommend highly.